A homeless camp recently popped up in the middle of the Hilltop business district, next to an upscale cocktail bar and restaurant.
It was an unusual sight since the city has taken a more aggressive approach to mitigating the impacts of homelessness on businesses and residents. Tacoma police visited the encampment on Tuesday and told people they would need to leave by Wednesday, some people living there told The News Tribune.
City spokeswoman Maria Lee said Wednesday the city became aware of the camp on Monday. She said the property owner, Tejvir Basra, asked the city to take action. Lee said Basra is responsible for cleaning up the empty lot near South 10th and South J streets, where more than a dozen tents were scattered on Tuesday evening.
As dusk fell Tuesday, many of the campers picked up trash around the grassy lot and gathered their belongings, folding blankets and tents tightly and expertly into shopping carts in the chilly air. Next door, the bar and restaurant was lively, and people sat inside chatting and sipping drinks by cozy candlelight.
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By Wednesday afternoon, most of the campers were gone. Camper Shannon Southland said after the warning from Tacoma police, most people dispersed by Wednesday morning.
Southland said she’s not planning to leave. She said she doesn’t mind going to jail. She added that each time she and others get shuffled along, they end up losing about half their belongings.
The grassy lot they chose, which is slated to be developed into 247 market-rate apartments and almost 17,000 square feet of retail space, has long sat vacant. When the Tacoma City Council approved an eight-year tax break for the development in March 2017, the Kirkland-based developer said he expected to break ground that June. Eight months later, there are no signs of construction.
Councilman Keith Blocker said he was made aware of the camp and reached out to Tacoma Police Department’s homeless outreach team to see if it could provide services to the people camping there.
“It is getting harder to find places to go” since the City Council banned public camping last summer, Blocker said. “TPD and our HOT team are doing their best to get out to the encampments and direct them to the temporary site that we have established, and, when that is filled, we try to get people to utilize other shelter services.”
While the Hilltop camp is on private property, the public camping ban has created a squeeze for some experiencing homelessness.
It has left people like Southland frustrated because there is often no place for her to go. The sanctioned, tent-city stability site in the Dome District that Blocker referred to is often at capacity with a waiting list (Southland said she’s on that list). Shelters usually are full as well and have to turn people away, city staff have said.
“I don’t want to paint a rosy picture. Our reality is we have a serious homeless problem,” Blocker said. “The city of Tacoma is investing millions of dollars to address it, and still the resources that we have are not enough for everybody. That’s just the harsh reality of what we’re facing right now.”
Tacoma Police Department spokeswoman Loretta Cool said the campers were the same group that were moved out of three lots on South M Street late last week, though some said they’d been in and around the newer location for longer than that.
“There were 22 people contacted and informed that the owner of the property had signed a trespass authorization letter and asked us to remove them from his properties,” Cool said in an email. “They were contacted by (the homeless outreach team) yesterday and informed that they would have to move as the owner had requested. As of this afternoon, all but two tents were removed by the occupants on their own. There were no tickets issued.”